It was not long ago that President Obama told the Saudis to “share the neighborhood” with Iran, as part of his solution for regional stability in the Middle East. So it would not be hard to imagine a future American president who would also say we must accept Iran as a nuclear power because the alternative would be war, which would not be in American interests.1.2
But what if the Israelis think differently, seeing a nuclear Iran as their existential threat that cannot stand? Israel still adheres to the Begin Doctrine, when Prime Minister Begin said after Israel’s preemptive attack against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, “We shall not allow any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction turned against us. … This attack will be a precedent for every future government in Israel.”
One of Israel’s respected senior intelligence experts told me there is broad consensus within Israel’s intelligence, security, political and military sectors that if Iran is about to cross the nuclear threshold, Israel will act unilaterally. Israel also believes it has the capacity to effectively delay the Iranian nuclear program.
No matter who wins the next Israeli election in March — whether it is a right or center or unity government — all would act to stop Iran from crossing the “red line” to a nuclear weapon. Crossing the line could mean a kinetic attack or something else, such as a devastating cyber attack, but no matter what, it would be a political decision for Israel’s survival, much like Israel’s preemptive attack on Egypt’s air force in 1967.
But what if Israel’s threat assessment conflicts with what a future U.S. administration sees as its long-term security interests for the Middle East?
There is no guarantee that a President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE, in his second term, would green-light an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, even if the evidence were overwhelming. This month the president praised Iran for negotiating a prisoner swap and said it proves a new nuclear deal with Iran can be done.
It is also hard to believe that any of the current Democratic presidential candidates would be on board with any preemptive Israeli action. Some intelligence analysts believe Iran is a rational state actor and that Israel and the U.S. can live with a nuclear Iran, much like we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union in a game of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Yet, to draw such a parallel — to believe that the ideology that motivated the atheist communists of the Soviet Union is similar enough to that of the revolutionary Islamists of Iran — would be asking a lot of the Israelis.
The stakes are so high that now is the time to plan for a potential showdown. Iran will not be deterred from pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities as long as this Islamist regime is in power; the only question is when Iran’s supreme leader and his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will make that decision. For all we know, they’ve already crossed the line in clandestine nuclear sites that are not open to international inspections. Knowing this, it is imperative to discuss the mechanisms to resolve a potential diplomatic and political standoff, instead of dealing with the fallout after an Israeli preemptive strike.
There is a strong case to be made that, if it is in Israel’s interests to preemptively attack Iran, it also would be in America’s interests. However, it’s likely that a future U.S. administration will think that a nuclear Iran can be managed and that an Israeli strike is the worst scenario for American interests, based on failures such as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
It also is possible that an Iranian attack on Israel — from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — could force Israel to contemplate attacking Iran, including its nuclear facilities, as the proper response. That could force Israel and the United States into conflicting positions based on differing interests.
Some have proposed a joint U.S.-Israeli defense pact, similar to NATO, that would specify that an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would be considered an attack on the U.S. Such a pact, however, is a bad idea for both parties. Israel does not want America drawn into a war on its behalf, and it wants freedom of action in case a future U.S. administration doesn’t share its perceived existential interests.
In 1981, the U.S. joined the United Nations Security Council condemnation of Israel for violating international law when Israel preemptively attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor (Operation Babylon). At the time, the New York Times said “Israel’s sneak attack … was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression.” In retrospect, that attack certainly was in the world’s interests, but it was unilaterally condemned at the time. Today, an Israeli attack on any of the secret Iranian nuclear military sites would make that international reaction look tame by comparison. The world likely would sanction and boycott Israel, perhaps permanently.
But what should America do, knowing this scenario is not improbable?
Perhaps now is the time to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to outline what constitutes a legitimate threshold for an Israeli preemptive action. Granted, this would be a snapshot in time that will evolve, but it would be a beginning. MOUs are not sacrosanct and the U.S. has suspended them against Israel in the past and imposed other consequences, such as suspending the delivery of fighter jets to Israel after its strike in Osirik. This is why being proactive, and not reactive, is so important.
Such a document could be a significant marker to cause Iran to refrain from taking the last step toward developing its nuclear program. It could create more stability in the region; Iran might think twice before continuing to violate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
We do know that the JCPOA, at best, delayed Iran’s nuclear program development. Perhaps an MOU between the U.S. and Israel on what constitutes a legitimate preemptive action, combined with ever-increasing sanctions, would motivate the Iranians to renegotiate the nuclear deal, which is a goal of the Trump administration.
Naysayers will argue this is a dangerous play that will drag America into another war in the Middle East. Perhaps, but they are blind to the dangers of the JCPOA that they support — it’s a pathway for Iran to develop its nuclear program in the near future.
No matter where you stand, now is the time to begin discussions about how to handle Iran’s nuclear destiny, not when Israel has decided to act.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides on the geo-politics of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.